The UAE's fashion scene has long struggled with something of a dichotomy. On one hand, there has been an energetic movement to market Dubai as a fashion capital, with the twice-yearly Dubai Fashion Week punctuated by a seemingly infinite variety of privately run fashion shows that coincide with shopping festivals and retail seasons. On the other, however, few would claim that the country has a thriving indigenous rag trade. Sure, there are plenty of tailors, lots of fabric shops, an outpost of the couture fashion college Esmod and some enterprising designers playing with the traditional motifs of the Middle East (appliquéd ghutra, anyone?). There are couture designers galore, specialising in made-to-measure evening wear, but in comparison with, say, Beirut, where couture lingers as a trade from the city's heyday as the Paris of the East, there is little in the way of technical know-how, innovation and the visual vernacular that distinguishes each fashion week from its sister events around the world.
The fashion weeks are still young, but have failed to make the international splashes that, say, Sao Paulo, Sydney or Tokyo achieve. This is in part because there is little division between trade and consumer: the serious businesses of a fashion week - buying for retail and trend-driving - are subsumed here by the froth of glamour. Luckily, the Emirates' more dedicated fashionistas are not so easily discouraged, and with the global downturn being particularly painful in Europe and the US, retailers and designers are intensifying their search for new markets. One interesting development is the decision by the Scottish university Heriot-Watt to introduce two of its highly rated fashion degrees to the Dubai campus: courses that concentrate on the practicalities of textile innovation, technique, business and manufacturing, turning out creative yet eminently employable graduates.
The latest seed of change, though, is the introduction of Dubai editions to two of the world's most important fashion trade shows next October, Premiere Classe and Who's Next. Well established as hunting grounds for both successful and emerging design talents, the trade shows' incursion here reveals a new understanding of the importance of the Middle East market to the international fashion scene, and looks set to bring an injection of professionalism and competition to the Emirates.
There's nothing new, of course, in European brands seeing the Emirates as a source of funds to ease their own ailing circumstances. It does seem, though, that Premiere Classe and Who's Next have hit on something - as befits trade shows that peddle future trends - and the organisers are playing on curiosity about the East to create a first show of some 250 exhibitors displaying accessories (at Premiere Class), womenswear and urban wear (both at Who's Next, which is a showcase for emerging designers).
"We feel that Dubai is a central hub in the Middle East and everybody wants to discover Dubai," explains Boris Provost, the project manager for the two events. "We have seen a tremendous rate of development in the fashion industry in Dubai and across the Middle East over the past five years. Still, we feel that the Middle East in general lacks a high-quality fashion trade show. The region also lacks fashion exhibitions representing European designers - we have seen a strong demand from our exhibitors in Paris to set up their brands in Middle East and we have also seen a growing number of Middle Eastern buyers at our trade show in Paris in the recent past."
Provost expects around 15 per cent of the exhibitors to be Middle Eastern brands, while the buyers targeted will be from across the MENA area, as well as Eastern Europe and Asia. The fact that the French government will be helping to fund French designers to travel to Dubai for the trade show is interesting proof that the international business community is willing to take the Emirates's fashion industry seriously. "The main pull for the French designers that would be exhibiting in the Dubai show would be that they have an entrance to the Middle Eastern market," says Provost. The benefits cut both ways of course: while the buyers are expected to be from the MENA region, the opportunity to compete at an international level is an important one for designers here, many of whom find it difficult to break out of the golden cage that is Dubai fashion.
For the first event, even a fraction of the 55,000 visitors who attend the Paris events would be a worthy indicator of Dubai's potential as the Middle East's fashion hub, and the timing of the shows - one week after the Paris shows end - is calculated to take advantage of the momentum of the seasonal fashion cycle. "Our objective is to make the show in Dubai a very important date in the international fashion calendar, by making Dubai the last main fashion trade show of the spring/summer sales season; this would be a week after the Paris show," explains Provost.
The country's fashion industry would be wise to take note and take part.